A CHANCE MEETING
A Short Story
Lewis B. Smith
Roger Dunnegan was a busy man. An important man, by his own lights: he owned three grist mills and a general goods store. The mills were located in three small townships scattered through Perry County, in the Indiana Territory; while the store lay across the river in the larger town of Dover’s Bend, just south of the river and across the border in Kentucky. Managing his many properties kept him on horseback for a good bit of every day; he rode from one mill to another and then across the border to check on his store at least twice a week. He lived in a growing settlement just across the river from Dover’s Bend; there his wife Elaine, five years his junior, tended a household that included six children; four of them were hers and two had been born to Roger’s first wife, Julia. She had died bringing their second son into the world, and despite his happiness with Elaine, Roger still missed her every time he looked into her boy’s eyes.
It might have been simpler for Roger to live next to his store in Dover’s Bend, but his Quaker upbringing had left him with a lifelong loathing of slavery. He could not abide the casual cruelty and brutality of the institution, but at the same time, there was a lot of money to be made selling flour and fabric and other manufactured goods south of the river, where industry was virtually non-existent among the rolling hills and big plantations. So he held his nose when he was in Dover’s Bend, greeting the slavers with a smile and a wave as they rode their carriages into town, their pockets lined with the cash generated by the unrequited toil of their laborers, and he accepted their payments without demur. To salve his conscience – which, in his most private moments, he wished would not prick him quite so often – he donated a fair amount of his profits every year to various charities that helped runaway Africans establish themselves in the North. Occasionally he was even known to shelter a runaway briefly before sending them on their way, although he did his best to keep this from becoming known to his neighbors, especially those to the south. Business, after all, was business.
On this fine spring day, Dunnegan was riding to the northernmost of his holdings, the Hurricane Mill, located in Hurricane Township, Indiana – a small but growing community of some two hundred souls. The road – if the two stumpy, rutted parallel tracks could be graced with the term – was overhung with towering trees, and dipped occasionally as it crossed one of the area’s many winding springs. Once this area had been filled with native villages, but now the woods were quiet.
The Indians had mostly been driven out of this corner of the territory over the last few decades, although occasionally he would pass a campsite where one of the few remaining tribesmen would be setting traps or hunting deer. The last battle for the territory had been fought some twenty miles away, five years ago, during Tecumseh’s great uprising. Roger admired the great Indian chief’s courage in revolting against the superior numbers and arms of the United States government, even if the savagery of the Indian’s attacks on white settlements negated the virtue of their cause. But the warchief of the Shawnee had witnessed the destruction of his people and fled Indiana, continuing the fight till the bitter end. He finally perished in Canada, fighting alongside the British in the Battle of the Thames, where Dunnegan had been present, serving as a major of volunteers under General Harrison – a choice that had led to his dismissal from the Society of Friends, who rejected warfare in all forms.
No trace of the former conflict presented itself on this lovely spring day, as he rode through the sparsely settled region, surveying the woods on either side of the road. Here and there a rude log cabin sat in the middle of a recently cleared patch of forest – families were streaming north from Kentucky these days, looking for cheap land and a second chance to make something of themselves in a free territory. As he neared the settlement, the number of these clearings increased, until there was more cleared land than forest fronting the roadway. Then the trees drew back, and the twenty or so buildings that made up Hurricane Township drew into view. The grist mill was the largest and sturdiest of these, located on the town’s central square, between a saloon and a lawyer’s office. No matter how small the town, Dunnegan reflected, there had to be someone to sort out the land titles and settle the petty lawsuits and claims that arose.
Jebediah Clements, the mill’s manager, was standing in the door, watching as Dunnegan approached. He stepped forward and shook Roger’s hand as the owner dismounted.
“Morning, Mr. Dunnegan,” he said. “Glad to see you, as always.”
“Thankee kindly,” Roger replied. “How is business this week?”
“Steady,” his manager replied. “I just finished toting up the books for last month and have your profits counted out and ready to pick up. Of course, half of it is coin, plus three pigs, six chickens, and two promissory notes!”
“Pen up the livestock and sell them as you can,” said Dunnegan. “I’ll let you hold the notes until they are paid off, as usual. Anything else of note?”
“Yessir,” he said. “Runaways! A man and a woman with a baby; they’re hiding in the shed out back. Slave catchers came through looking for them about two hours before they arrived. I assume you’ll want to see them?”
“Of course,” said Dunnegan.
“Don’t know why you bother,” grumbled the mill boss. “Better business would be to turn them over and collect the reward!”
Dunnegan shook his head.
“When I stand before the Almighty, I will not have it on my head that I returned any of his children to bondage for the sake of mammon,” he told Clements. “I can’t undo the plague of slavery, but when I can strike some small blow at it, I will. I pay you well enough to manage my property – and keep your mouth shut about my business!”
“Mum’s the word, sir,” said Clements. “Just talking to you as one businessman to another, I was.”
“There is more to life than business,” Dunnegan said. “Hand me the coin purse with my profits, please.”
He dumped the coins into his had and counted out the take. It had indeed been a steady week, and more customers than usual had paid in cash to have their meal ground. The Lord provides, he thought as he made his way out back.
Dunnegan entered the shed and quickly spotted the runaways. The man and woman were hiding behind a pile of flour sacks, obviously terrified that he was a slave catcher.
“Come on out, children,” he said. “I have no intention of returning you to your master.”
The young man stepped out, tall and light-skinned for a Negro – no doubt the product of a white master’s lust being vented on some captive female. This was an activity that all Southerners knew about, but none ever mentioned. It was one of the many reasons why Dunnegan so thoroughly detested the Peculiar Institution. Slavers denied the Negroes their humanity until their lust took hold of them, and then acknowledged it in the most basic way of all.
“We’s thank you foh ‘lowing us to hide here, massuh,” the man said. “Me and Sadie done took off when our old massuh said he gone sell her off wid our li’l baby, all de way down in Tennessee! I jes’ din’t wants to lib apart from her, ‘specially since we jes’ jump de broom las’ yeah.”
“Well, you are not safe here!” said Dunnegan. “The state government isn’t even fully formed yet, and there is no one to stop slave catchers from coming north and snatching you away. They were already through here, looking for you, earlier today, according to my foreman.”
He reached in his pocket and counted out four silver dollars.
“Take this; and take a couple of the chickens from the coop beside the mill,” he said. “Stay off the main roads, lay low by day, and travel north and east by night. By the time the moon is full again, you should be far enough north to be out of their reach. There are lots of new townships springing up in the Michigan Territory, and you should be able to find work – and be left alone. Do you have a trade?”
“Yassuh,” said the freed slave. “Me, I kin shoe hosses, and Sadie, she a good housekeepah. We kin suppo’t ousselves and li’l Franklin, too. We jes’ need a chance, suh, and you done gib us dat. My name be Lane, suh. My massuh was named Jenkins, but I doan wan’ go by dat. Wass yo’ las’ name, suh?”
“Dunnegan,” replied Roger, “but I’d rather you not use it. My mother’s maiden name was O’Shea – it’s a good old Irish name. You may call yourself by it, if you like.”
“Lane Oshay!” said the young black man. “I use it proudly, suh!”
“Well, then,” said Dunnegan, “Be off with you and your wife. Good luck, my friend!”
“Thank you, suh!” the young Negro suddenly dropped to his knees as he spoke. “I’se din’t know white folks could be so kind!”
“Get on your feet, man!” said Roger with mild irritation. “Man was made to bow before the Almighty, and none other. It’s the heat of the afternoon right now and most of the menfolk are out in their fields, and their women in the house tending babies and wash - a good time to slip out of town unseen. Now you two be on your way, and may God speed your journey!”
They stepped out of the shed and into the street, where Lane quickly grabbed up two fat hens, trussed their feet, and popped them into a flour sack. With another bow and several more thank-you’s, he and Sadie trotted off down the street and disappeared into the forest that surrounded Hurricane Township. Roger watched them go and uttered a silent prayer for their safety, and then turned to enter the mill.
He had never heard the buckboard wagon pull up, but there it was, crammed to the gills with the household goods of the family that sat up front. A tall, sturdy man, somewhat dark-skinned but with blunt, honest features, held the reins. Next to him sat a pale, somewhat sickly-looking woman, and beside them a pretty young girl of nine and a black-headed boy somewhat younger, who had inherited his father’s dark complexion.
“Pardon me, sir, are you Mr. Dunnegan, the mill owner?” the man asked.
“Roger, please,” Dunnegan said. “And yes, that would be me.”
“Tom,” the man replied. “and my wife, Nancy. We’re heading west, looking for unclaimed land. I was wondering if you had any need for day labor? I’m strong as an ox and pretty handy with most tools.”
“Go speak with Mr. Clements,” said Dunnegan. “He runs the mill for me and is always complaining about the lack of good help. He could probably put you to work for at least a day or two.”
“Were those slaves yours?” the man asked him.
“No, I refuse to own another human being,” said Dunnegan. “Those were runaways from Kentucky, and I sent them on their way north. Aside from the pure wickedness of it, slavery is bad for business. Notice how there are no factories in the South! Free southerners won’t do the hard manual labor that manufacturing requires, and slaveowners won’t spare their work from the fields. I tell you, Tom, the future of this country is the factory and the mill, not the farm! As long as slavery persists, the South will fall further behind the North every year.”
“So there’s no truth to the rumor the new state legislature is going to vote slavery in?” Tom asked him.
“None,” said Roger. “My brother is a legislator, and he said the slavers simply don’t have the votes. Indiana is a free territory, about to become a free state, and there is nothing the planters can do to stop it!”
“Good thing!” said Tom. “A free smallholder like me can’t compete with those big planters. There’s no room in the south for free labor, at least not when it comes to farming. I came here to escape that wickedness – well, that, and because I hear it’s a lot easier to get a clear title to land up here. I lost two hundred acres in Kentucky due to bad surveys and poorly made laws!”
“There’s a lot of available land up around Pigeon Creek, about twenty miles west of here,” said Dunnegan. “If you can get up there in the next few months, there should be some choice acreage that’s not claimed yet.”
“Splendid!” the farmer said, his homely face beaming. “If I can work here for a few days, better yet, for a week, that will give my family a chance to rest from the road and put a few coins in my pocket for the last leg of the journey.”
“There’s an inn at the edge of town,” said Dunnegan. “It’s called Boar’s Head. Here, this should get a room for you and your family for a couple of nights at least,” he said, handing the man a silver dollar.
Tom’s dark face flushed. “I thank you for the offer, but I don’t take charity,” he said. “I’ve always provided for me and mine.”
“Consider it an advance on your labor, then,” said Dunnegan, “and go talk to Clements.”
“That I will, and thank you kindly,” said the farmer. “I’ll do just that." He left, walking around the side of the mill towards the front door.
Dunnegan looked at the woman and her two children. She looked more than exhausted, she looked sick, and he could see the concern in her daughter’s eyes.
“Listen,” he said. “Take your children up to the Boar’s Head and tell Hannah, the cook, that Roger said to feed them and you a good hot meal and put it on my bill.”
“You’re very kind, sir,” she said in a cultivated voice that spoke of a more sophisticated upbringing than her husband’s. “Now what do you tell the man, children?”
“Thank you, sir!” the boy and girl said simultaneously. Dunnegan patted each of them on the head, and the boy looked at him quizzically.
“What is it, lad?” he asked the child.
“Is slavery really wicked?” the boy asked him.
Dunnegan went to one knee, placing himself eye to eye with the dark-headed lad. He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and spoke.
“Son,” he said, “I am a Quaker, and I believe that all men are brothers in the eyes of God, regardless of skin color. There are few things on this earth more wicked than selling your brother at the auction block. Even killing a man acknowledges his humanity, albeit in a savage and vengeful way. But selling a man? That denies him the very essence of who he is, his status as a child of our Almighty Father. It tells him he is no more than a piece of livestock! If that is not wicked, I don’t know what wickedness is. We call this a free country, and it is, I suppose, freer than most. We celebrate our liberty at every opportunity, but at the same time we hold two million or more people in slavery. That’s wrong; more than wrong, it is evil, and God will smite us for this sin if we don’t rid ourselves of it. So listen to me, my boy – if you ever have the chance to do something to rid us of this infernal curse of slavery, you do it, no matter how small or how great it might be. Will you promise me that?”
“I promise!” the boy said.
“Abraham, come along with me and Sarah now,” the woman said.
“Yes, mama,” the boy replied, and Dunnegan watched as the Lincoln family made their way to the tavern and a hot meal.